Tour de Brooklyn: A Borough Grub Crawl

Last weekend Bon Appetit magazine teamed up with Belvedere Vodka and Chase Sapphire to take a tour of the ever-expanding Brooklyn Food scene. Focusing on three key neighborhoods, Cobble Hill, Williamsburg, and Red Hook, the tours worked to really highlight some of the areas’ best food options, while making it walker-friendly.

I was lucky enough to join Friday’s Cobble Hill grub crawl and started out at Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli’s Italian inspired restaurant Frankies 457 Spuntino. The joint was packed inside, but luckily we ducked out into the garden to sip a berry-ripe lambrusco and nibble on seasonal crostini. The way the tour worked was that they had four groups of people intermittently going to one of the four spots where we stayed for about 45 minutes. Frankies proved a good place to start, but our next stop felt a little awkward.

Dessert before dinner, anyone? Not that I am actually complaining. Given our tour took us to Kim Ima’s brick-and-mortar location of Treats Truck and to a pile of luscious peanut butter and chocolate sandwich cookies, it was a win-win situation. We followed that up with Clover Club and had a lovely punch by cocktail goddess Julie Reiner, who was actually there explaining her drink, giving us a recipe, and then pouring up their house drink comprised of raspberries and Dorothy Parker gin. We ended the night at Seersucker and sampled chef Robert Newton’s sinful fried chicken, fluffy biscuits, pimento cheese, and the Thirsty Owl Riesling that they have on tap. All together, the tour did highlight some of the hottest spots in the neighborhood right now.

On Saturday they covered Williamsburg and smartly chose Rye for cocktails, Maison Premiere for oysters, and Brooklyn Winery for a tour and wine tasting. The other two places I was less impressed with and would have skipped, one of which was Allswell because, frankly, it’s not anything special. Same for the jaunt to the Meatball Shop; while it’s delicious, there’s nothing Brooklyn about it given its two other locations in Manhattan. Sunday’s food crawl took place in Red Hook and did the neighborhood well by hitting up Stumptown Coffee Roasters, trying St. John Frizell’s southern-style Fort Defiance, eating Korean breakfast at The Good Fork, filling up on smoked meat at Mile End, and dancing at the historical bar Sunny’s.

Overall, the folks behind the tour did well to give a broad sampling of the neighborhoods that you can easily walk around in. The only other location I would have included is Prospect Heights where you can easily indulge in seasonal nibbles from The Vanderbilt, cocktails at Weather Up, ramen at Chuko, and oysters at Cornelius—but I guess that’s a good excuse to do that one on my own. 

Industry Insiders: Frank Falcinelli and Frank Castronovo, Kitchen Magicians

It’s impossible to pin down exactly what makes some New York restaurants successful where so many others have failed, but whatever the secret is, Frank Falcinelli (left) and Frank Castronovo (right) are in on it. "The Franks," as they’re affectionately known, are the owners of Frankies 457 Spuntino, Frankies 17 Spuntino, Prime Meats, Cafe Pedlar, and the new Frankies 570 Spuntino, each one of them beloved by critics and casual diners alike.

The Queens natives grew up on home-cooked Italian fare courtesy of their respective grandparents, and learned the business from some of the world’s most renowned chefs in restaurants in America, France, Germany, and Australia. They partnered up in 2003 and put their collective experience into their first restaurant, Frankie’s 457 in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn the following year. Its casual atmosphere and seasonal Italian menu – including what many consider the best meatballs in town – were an instant hit. "I believe the secret to our success is that we’re quality- and value-driven, and we’re respectful of our ingredients and our guests," says Castronovo. "It’s not a hobby, it’s a business," adds Falcinelli. "You take it seriously, you’re professional in your approach, and you know what you’re doing. You need friendly service, a good atmosphere, good-value alcohols, quality, good food, and clean bathrooms – the right stuff." With their universally beloved restaurant empire humming along, you’d think they could relax a bit, but Falcinelli takes nothing for granted. "My biggest fear is that I’ll wake up one morning to find that people don’t love meatballs anymore."

 

What kinds of things were you into growing up? 
Frank C: I was really involved with sports and played hockey and football, and I was on the swim team. I also got into art because my mom was into design and clothing. There were always lots of arts and crafts at home. Always. At least five open projects at any given time. I got into it and still am.
 
Frank F: I was always into cooking when I was growing up, and since I can remember, I wanted to be a restaurant owner. I was a creative kid and enjoyed art, music and reading.
 
Where did you pick up your best cooking skills, and where did you pick up your best management skills? Were they the same places?
FC: With regard to cooking skills, it was when I was in France, working under Paul Bocuse, and later at Bouley when I came back to New York. It’s been cumulative with regard to management, going back to my first job as a manager when I was 23 at Jean Claude. I also learned a lot from my grandfather, who was a colonel in the military. He had a tremendous work ethic and I learned by his example. One position did prepare me the best in terms of management and overall efficiency. I was an executive chef for a multi-million dollar corporate catering company. Huge staff and lots of last-minute parties and events so you and your team had to be prepared. It was tough but it really trained me to handle any situation. Restaurants are so easy compared to catering where there’s no set menu and you have to control food costs. It was an intense job with long days but I was determined and ended up staying for three years, and I’m so glad I did.
 
FF: I credit a solid foundation to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, N.Y.] where I learned the basic fundamentals and later, expounding on these at the restaurants I worked at in France, and then working for David Burke and Charlie Palmer. They both were very influential. I learned a great deal from observing Charlie Palmer at Aureole. He was one of the first chefs to open multiple restaurants of that quality in different cities. He was a great manager and so were the guys at Myriad Restaurant Group when I was there, like Michael Bonadies who’s now down at the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville. He was an incredible manager and all of those guys who worked with me at that time. They were all graduates of the Cornell restaurant management program so I learned a lot.
 
You’ve both spent time internationally, in Europe, Asia and beyond. Did leaving the U.S. give you a perspective that has helped you succeed since you returned to New York? Are there any approaches to running a restaurant that you picked up overseas that you apply to your restaurants here in the U.S.? What do the Europeans do better than us? What do they do worse?
FC: Absolutely. It gave us a perspective and insight that has only helped us succeed — by learning from and being able to observe and understand cultures with long-standing traditions. Seasonality, for example. In Asia, I learned that you can cook with just a burner and a wok. It’s a minimalist approach but you produce great food and it was important to really understand that.
 
FF:  Any time you leave the country, you come back with a fresh perspective. Seeing and experiencing another culture is always exciting because things are done differently. The Europeans do some things better and they have a definite established way of running a restaurant, but they also repeat the same things over and over again. There’s more flexibility here, and in the last five years it’s changed drastically to a level of casualness that you’d never ever get before this time. It just wasn’t that cool to be cool, you know? The food had to change and restaurants today are more accessible in terms of value and atmosphere. This change is good because it gives people choices. You can get away with a lot more because you don’t have to operate in a certain mold. Today, it’s more creative and you’re freer to make decisions that you would never make before in a classic situation.
 
What is an average day like for you, if there is such a thing as an average day. Since you have several restaurants, how do you decide which ones to visit? Do you work together, or divide and rule, so to speak?
FC: We’re on a cycle rotation to ensure we stop by each restaurant and Cafe Pedlar several times a week and sometimes daily. With Frank, we do a little bit of both but more dividing lately because of the new restaurant to ensure everything’s running efficiently.
 
Tell me about Frankies 570 Spuntino. How does it differ from your other restaurants, and what is the common thread that unites them all?
FC: It’s center stage. I guess more center stage would be Rockefeller Center, but for us, this is it. Our philosophy and approach unite all of our restaurants.
 
FF: Same parents; different child. What you do with your first child is different from your second child, and with each kid, you learn something new. The common thread: same ownership and we stick to the plan.
 
How has business been going at 570 Spuntino? Does it require a lot of oversight because it is new, or is it sort of flying on its own at this point?
FC: It’s been great but it does require attention and oversight, and Frank and I are in the restaurant every day.
 
FF: Every new baby requires your time, but it’s something you love and you know it will always require focus, attention, and love — and insight and vision.
 
Does 570 represent the sum of all the knowledge and experience you’ve gained from your previous restaurants? Are you introducing any new ideas that you haven’t worked with before?
FC: Yes, it’s all of that. We bring everything from our collective training and experience to this new restaurant, and we wouldn’t do anything differently.
 
FF: Yes; it represents 50 years of experience between Frank and myself. We’re always taking risks but my biggest fear is that I’ll wake up one morning to find that people don’t love meatballs anymore.
 
You’ve got plenty to keep you busy, but what do you have planned for the future? Anything to look forward to during the winter season?
FC: Skiing! Christmas in Germany and winter skiing in the Alps.
 
FF: We’ll be focusing on Prime Meats, our German farm-to-table restaurant. We’re planning some things now for winter. For example, we’re going to break down a whole pig and have some wine and beer dinners.
 
What do you like to do when you have time off? Any hobbies of leisure activities that keep you balanced amid a hectic career?
FC: I’m doing what I love. I also love to be with my family and travel as much as I can.
 
FF: Cooking and entertaining for friends and family; sailing; hiking; metal and wood working; and learning how to fly a plane.
 

Photo: Darren Ankenman